Prep Basketball

Boys' basketball notes: West Branch goes from not playing at all to virtually every night

West Branch Bears
West Branch Bears

The West Branch Bears went 20 days last month between games because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

They returned last week to play. And play and play and play.

West Branch got in five games in six days, including back-to-back-to-backers. Yeah, these are kids, but it was still exhausting.

“Their legs are dead, to say the least,” said Coach Jason Kern. “Any stretch like that, even three games in a week, is miserable. But going back-to-back-to-back is really tough on them.”

Class 2A’s fifth-ranked team survived the stretch pretty well for the most part. It beat Tipton, Wilton, North Cedar and West Liberty.

But Wilton upset the Bears on a last-second 3-pointer Monday night, 53-52. That turned around a 77-56 West Branch win just two days earlier.

“Sometimes I think losing a game like that is the best thing that can happen to you,” Kern said. “It wakes the kids up, shows you you are not unbeatable, and that you’ve got to show up every night. I told them this could be the best thing for us. I think we’re going to become closer as a team, as a group collectively.”

West Branch (13-1) has a balanced offense led by center Jeff Bowie and forward Simon Palmer. The 6-foot-5 Bowie, an Iowa Hawkeye football signee, averages 13.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

The 6-4 Palmer is at 12.8 points and 6.9 rebounds. Forward Thomas Gould (9.7 ppg) and guard Gavin Hierseman (9.1 ppg) provide other offensive options.

Holden Arnaman runs the show as a freshman point guard, and Kern feels he really could be a big-time player as he matures.

“For an opponent scouting us and preparing for us, you can’t just key on one or two guys,” Kern said. “A lot of teams, they’ve got two dudes that can go get it any night, but the rest of the supporting cast isn’t very good. Where with this team, I think we’ve got five or six guys that can potentially get 20 on any particular night, if we need them to. So if you do shut down those two bigger guys inside, we do have three or four other guys who can fill it up.”

West Branch actually has had two coronavirus pauses this season. Kern said a player tested positive earlier in the season, then the team was hit very hard in early January, with all but three players and Kern testing positive.

That included the team’s assistant coaches. West Branch plays for the River Valley Conference South Division championship Friday night against Mid-Prairie.

That begins a five-games-in-a-week stretch to end the regular season.

“I remember when I was a player, you’d rather play a game than practice this time of the year,” Kern said. “But as a coach, you kind of like practicing to get ready for these games.”

Around The Hoop

— Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s Caleb Schlaak is second in Class 4A in rebounds per game at 10.1. The senior center is one of only two players in the class to average a double-double (18.3 points per game). Des Moines East’s Tyron Wright, just a freshman, is the other.

English Valleys clinched its first winning season in 20 years last week with a win over Tri-County. The Bears are 12-7 with two regular-season games remaining. The finale is against Belle Plaine, which English Valleys hosts in the first round of Class 1A district play Feb. 15.

Carson Michels of Bellevue Marquette is the state’s leading scorer going into Friday at 29.9 points per game. That’s slightly ahead of Algona Garrigan’s Angelo Winkel (28.3) and Des Moines North’s Diondre Taylor (27.8). Montezuma’s Trey Shearer is fourth at 27.6 points per game.

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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